Down's child at centre of schooling row

A Belfast mother is fighting for a normal education for her disabled son. Nicole Veash reports
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A MOTHER who has kept her disabled son at home for nearly two years says she will go to jail rather than send him to a special-needs school.

Gail McKibben believes that 13-year-old David, who has Down's syndrome, should be allowed to attend a mainstream school, alongside his primary- school friends - in line with government policy.

Mrs McKibben, from Belfast, says she will take her case to Europe if the local education authority insists that David goes to a special school, despite having spent his early years in a state primary school.

She said: "I'm fighting this case for all parents of children with learning disabilities. We should be able to choose what school we send our children to, like any other parents."

According to a recent Green Paper, all children with special needs should, wherever possible, be offered a place in a mainstream school.

Mrs McKibben, who has two other children, said: "The Government seem to believe in inclusion, but this is being denied to my son. I've never wanted to see him separated from the rest of the community. If he goes to a special school it will be much harder for him to interact with wider society when he finishes his education."

David, who has a reading age of eight, had his own work programme at primary school, but joined his classmates for sport and other extra activities.

He was accepted at a local secondary school and was expecting to continue working at his own pace alongside his peers, but then the local education board decided his needs would be best served in a special school.Mrs McKibben, who lost her appeal against the decision, chose to educate him at home instead.

She said: "I've had David at home with me for nearly two years and it is starting to be very hard for him. His friends still come round after school, but he is missing out on the social side of education.

"I refuse to let my son be segregated when he can cope with many aspects of mainstream education. I have no intention of giving up or giving in.

"People don't realise if a child has a special-needs statement you can't choose where he or she goes to school, which is contrary to legislation for children without learning disabilities."

Mrs McKibben, a part-time lecturer and chair of Disability Action, was recently given a 12-month discharge by a Belfast magistrate for "wilful non-attendance" and could face sizeable fines if she continues educating David at home.

Elizabeth Arrondelle, of Network 81, said: "We fight for parents' rights to send children with learning disabilities to the schools of their choice.

"My own daughter has Down's syndrome and she has spent her entire education in mainstream schools.

"The problem is that each area has its own rules, so it really is a lottery."

Carol Boys, director of the Down's Syndrome Association, said: "There have been a number of cases like Mrs McKibben's, but no one has taken the issue to Europe.

"We totally support her fight because we need to establish this parental right in law. It is no good each individual authority having a different ruling."

Ms Boys said the Government was clearly behind inclusive education for children with special educational needs.

"All parents and children have the right to choose what school they attend," she said. "Children with Down's syndrome find it extremely beneficial to attend a mainstream school because they are being included in normal society.

"By separating them from their primary school friends, they are made to feel different and this can have serious repercussions in their later life."